Last week, many Americans and media outlets responded to the Orlando shooting with a shared, now-standardized routine: an expression of outrage followed by a demand for politicians to take more decisive action that goes beyond sending “thoughts and prayers.”
Much of the reaction I witnessed online and in the news wasn’t surprising. The filibuster by Senate Democrats to push gun-control legislation was to be expected and, although it was outrageous, I wasn’t shocked to see so many reporters in the media, such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, find creative ways to blame the tragedy—committed by a possibly gay, self-confessed ISIS-following, registered Democrat—on Christian Republicans.
I did find remarkable the number of my peers who posted about the tragedy on social media. “Posted” is a generous word; rather, they hijacked the tragedy as a means to highlight their social consciousness and demonstrate their moral superiority. I couldn’t escape obnoxious, sanctimonious Facebook posts by my online friends, most of them college students like myself, all of which had an air of “What happened was awful, but hey, don’t forget about me. Look at how passionately I’m condemning it!”
These types of responses aren’t just limited to devastating national events. “Hashtag activism“ and “slacktivism”—wherein people give token support for a cause in the form of crafting a hashtag, publishing a social media post, or giving out a “like”—have become a hallmark of political engagement in recent years, particularly among college students. The prevalence of these self-indulgent sentiments prompted me to ask: when did political activism become so selfish?
The Rise of Shame Culture
This question requires considering the dramatic social and cultural changes infecting campuses across the country. From student tyranny at Mizzou and Yale to hysteria over Halloween costumes, building names, and other “microaggressions,” American colleges have became cesspools for an endless stream of grievances championed by student “activists.”
As New York Times writer David Brooks notes, a new moral code built upon what’s known as “shame culture” has accompanied this wave of campus chaos. Brooks explains how a shame culture deviates from a guilt culture: “In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.”
The ever-increasing dominance of social media networks, which enable people to simultaneously display themselves and observe everyone else, has facilitated this new moral system and instituted new, online behavior patterns.
First, members of a group—socially conscious students, let’s say—can post a thoughtful message or a link to an article that conveys their support for a cause. The other members of the group then praise each other for doing so, in the form of a “like” or a supportive comment, to mutually affirm their positions in the in-group.
Next, members police or ostracize other individuals in the online community who express different opinions. This provides an additional vehicle for members of the group to reaffirm their status and build their reputations. The social benefits conferred on these enforcers, meanwhile, lead to an intense feeling of anxiety and hyper-vigilance among members of the in-group. If they do not enjoy instant recognition, or receive the slightest hint of criticism, they feel as if they’ve been gravely wronged, and react accordingly.
To see what this culture looks like in reality, watch Cooper’s aforementioned exchange with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Bondi didn’t accept his assertion that her past opposition to same-sex marriage made her present concern for the LGBT community insincere and hypocritical. In response, Cooper actually pointed to his policing of her Twitter account: “I read your Twitter history for the last year, and I saw you tweeting about, you know, National Dog Month and National Shelter Dog Appreciation Day or Adopt-A-Shelter Dog Month. You know, it is Gay Pride Month, you’ve never even tweeted about Gay Pride Month.”
It didn’t matter that Bondi had just explained how she spent the morning fighting with a funeral home for overcharging family members of the Orlando victims. Her Twitter feed is evidently the measure of her commitment to their cause, and Cooper felt justified in shaming her simply due to her exclusion from the in-group that actively tweets support for LGBT Americans.
When Activism Meets Narcissism
The development of this shame culture has not only created a misguided moral system wherein actions are judged based on one’s inclusion or exclusion from a certain group, but it has also rendered political activism into much more of a selfish enterprise—as an opportunity for individuals to promote themselves alongside a political issue.
Contrast today’s activism with that of the civil rights era in the 1960s. These movements were characterized by hundreds of thousands of students participating in sit-ins, boycotts, walkouts, and confrontations with police. To be recognized as an activist for these causes, you couldn’t just talk about how much you liked MLK, you had to get out there on the front lines.
While student crusades today have also featured sit-ins, boycotts, walkouts, and even squabbles with police, one’s physical presence is no longer required to cement a place in the movement. Tweeting out a popular article or publishing a Facebook essay about how much you care, all from the comfort of your bedroom, conveys a person’s commitment without him actually having to do anything meaningful. Because of social media, you can now reap the social benefits associated with being an activist without, well, actually being an activist.
Ironically, this slacktivism might do more to inhibit a movement than help it. A 2014 study from the University of British Columbia analyzes how socially observable token acts of support influence the likelihood of further pro-social action. The study found that those who publicly expressed online support for a cause were no more likely to provide more meaningful contributions than someone who was just randomly asked to do so. This is consistent with other studies that have shown that when people privately expend effort for something, they’re more likely to contribute more meaningfully in the future.
Many student “activists” post links and share statuses, subsequently receive praise and recognition for doing so, and as a result believe they’ve helped the cause. Or they’ve fulfilled their selfish desire for this social approval, and thus they don’t feel compelled to support the cause in more tangible ways. What results is a situation in which a movement looks like it’s amassed significant support—and thus is treated as if it has—but in reality lacks substantive support.
Let’s Restore Standards for Action
This new shame culture and acceptance of online slacktivism is dangerous for several reasons. For one, it unjustly bolsters small movements spurred by tiny but vocal minorities—a trend that has caused trouble for many colleges in particular.
In just one example, Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKenna College—a school of 1,300—recently resigned after hundreds of social media users expressed outrage over a photo of “racially insensitive” Halloween costumes. What were “protests” like on campus? Two students went on a hunger strike, 30 students of color wrote a letter to the administration, and a relatively small group of fewer than 50 students staged a confrontation with President Hiram Chodosh. About 5 percent of the student body actually participated in the movement through tangible action; thus, it’s likely the online pressure forced the resignation.
This phenomenon has also manifested in other ways, namely in outrage culture. Take the recent controversy over Blake Lively’s Instagram post as an example. She borrowed a line from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” to caption her photo, prompting some angry commentary by an ambiguous number of social media users, and suddenly the media ran with the story that Lively had incited a full-blown scandal. But there was no real outrage—no protesting outside movie theaters, no boycotting, no action anywhere other than behind a computer screen.
It’s high time the media stopped confusing a loose collection of angry tweets with a march on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s also time that we individually stop legitimizing lazy online activism. Don’t incessantly praise your Facebook friends for “raising awareness” with their new picture filter, and don’t hail them as heroes after every impassioned status update. If we continue accepting anything less than real action, then we could find ourselves at the mercy of an online minority exercising their will over a silent, largely offline majority.